Blog

Meeting the Gods

August 4, 2017

“As a student I wanted to stand up at the mic during Q and A to challenge the terms under which one applies the term myth not to mention legend but I did not because the line was long because the speaker was well-known well-respected in other words he was a legend but not a myth.” - Layli Long Soldier, “Whereas”

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

As a former high school English teacher, I appreciate any new materials that make teaching easy and accessible. Recently, I read some of Rick Riordan's series of Percy Jackson and the Olympians. I was very impressed by the amount of accurate detail that he included in his texts about the ancient gods and goddesses. In The Lightning Thief, the reader is introduced to some very important mythic figures such as the Fates, Zeus, Poseidon, Hades, Medusa and a variety of other gods.

Classical mythology can seem chaotic because it is. The first gods are often both spouse and sibling. Many of them try to kill each other and there is a lot of fear between fathers and sons. Also, the Greek gods are also often the Roman gods, only with different names. Therefore, mapping a family tree becomes complicated very quickly. Instead of simply creating a map, Riordan places the gods into a modern-day environment, allowing fictitious humans to interact with them. In many cases, the gods are true to their mythic figures. Riordan offers details about ancient societies also. Not coincidentally, the reader comes to learn that Percy is actually short for Perseus. Many of the details of Percy's life actually reflect the legend of Perseus. It is interesting to see where the stories intertwine and mix and diverge. Of course, I am already familiar with a good number of these gods, and so I am capable of navigating between the ancient myth and modern-day invention.

I appreciate Riordan's attention to detail and resolve to faithfully describe the gods. Whereas the a few internet sites actually offer some useful details, I was fairly disappointed with the film. I understand that it is difficult to introduce and develop many characters in so short a space, however, I feel that the Disney version left out many important details. I believe that Riordan's text offered a great opportunity since he already laid the groundwork in bringing an ancient belief system into contemporary life. Unfortunately, the movie left out all details about the ancient society. Instead, the movie focused on stunts and action. From the very beginning, the movie vastly differed from the text. In the same way that the Disney film of Hercules left out the motivating factor for Hercules' anguish (the fact that Hera hated him because he was an illegitimate son of Zeus), this film leaves out necessary portions about nearly all of the gods. There is very little understanding about the gods and their motivations, which removes a lot of the impact and tension. Also, the book is set up as a bit of a mystery, which is altogether missing in the movie.

I find this film interpretation very disappointing because the groundwork had already been done. I believe that many missed opportunities turned the film into a fairly flat piece. While it did attempt a nod or two in the direction of ancient myth, they were few and far between. Having said all of that, I do believe that students can learn a great deal from an actual comparison between text and film. For example, in reading the text, then outlining the characters, and finally comparing story lines between text and movie, a student might gain a good working understanding of mythology. This would be a fairly straightforward English assignment, easily implemented in most classrooms. I can think of a number of other exercises which would translate into other necessary skills. So, regardless of my disappointment in the film, a combination of film and text still manages to create useful and worthwhile lessons.

One of the most important elements, that I see, is the way in which myth is depicted in each medium. The quote from Long Soldier at the beginning of this post hints at the fact that, while myths were once a system of belief, as soon as we start to use the term 'myth', then we no longer believe in the transcendent power of that story. Therefore, myths are an ancient system of belief, one in which we no longer believe. As an example of ancient thought, however, myth continues to be relevant. While the story loses power as systems of belief change, the idea that spurred the story is still very much relevant. And this is where Riordan's work excels. He has transported the story into present-day, making it both comic and tragic for teenagers today. He grabs teenagers' attention by creating contemporary contexts for ancient myths. I like this technique in getting readers interested, in making the stories real and relevant for them, and also in displaying a use for creative writing. All in all, I believe that Riordan's work offers an interesting and unique path for a first meeting with the gods.

To post a comment, click on the title of this post and scroll down.

Shakespeare's Henry V

April 14, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

When reading historical documents, it may be easy to forget the more mundane effects that occur when two cultures collide. However, Shakespeare's Henry the Fifth paints an example of this exact thing. In the play, the actual collision is often thought to take place in the battle between France and England, however it is actually through details of everyday life that Shakespeare exemplifies the angst of cultural divides. Shakespeare frames this combination of two cultures very well in his dramatic interpretation of the life of Henry the Fifth. Having just discussed both the text and the BBC's version of Henry the Fifth, I owe much of my rambling to a continued conversation from our film series. I am indebted to those participants for having inspired so much continued thought about this play.

To say that Henry the Fifth is a history play is not entirely true. It is, however, a well-developed sketch of a young king taking possession of land in France. In combining two empires, Shakespeare incorporates the French language directly into the text which offers an accurate portrayal of the experience. In addition, he includes characters with accented speech and he foregrounds a variety of ethnicities. Shakespeare also incorporates the classic technique of a chorus, a practice which stems from ancient Greek theatre, which helps to introduce the scenes and move through both time and place.

Henry the Fifth begins with an introduction from the Chorus, which frames the play. The film brilliantly portrays this as a voice-over narrator who renders commentary on the action. At the end of the film (spoiler alert!), we find out that the Boy is actually the narrator. For me, this creates an astonishing and brilliant use of the Chorus. In this case, the frame becomes the actual lens of the Boy as he has seen and lived through these times and with these characters. As an actual witness to their pranks, emotions, jokes and lives, he becomes an authority and a sage. In Henry IV, Part 2, it was Henry himself who sent the Boy to wait on Falstaff. So, it is very fitting to use his particular lens to navigate both Falstaff's death (at the beginning of the play) all the way through to Henry's own death. Throughout the play, the Boy attempts to separate himself from characters he finds unworthy (such as Pistol and Bardolph). He takes the audience a step closer to understanding honor and virtue through the life of Henry the Fifth. Therefore, his view of the battles and the politics becomes extremely important.

The film begins and ends with Henry V's funeral. The audience immediately understands the transitory nature of life, even the life of this great king, who died at the age of 44. It is somber to note that his young, French wife has an infant. At the end of the film, she kisses the infant and carries him away from Henry's casket. This moment follows closely on the heels of the courtship scene (which ends the text). Therefore, it accentuates the painful separation which comes so close upon the actual union. Shakespeare understands that everyone identifies with life, death and love. The final scene of Henry the Fifth surprises us with Henry's tenderness and care for Katherine, which itself comes close on the heels of the fierce battle scenes. Henry presses Katherine to speak English, but while she struggles with the language, she does not struggle to show her interest in Henry's proposal.

I am not surprised to find that Shakespeare writes brilliantly both in English and in French. Shakespeare uses French in a way that is, again, universally unmistakable. First, in a scene with Katherine and Alice, her attendant, Katherine attempts to learn a few English words. The scene beautifully demonstrates what it is like to learn a foreign language. In addition, it walks the audience through Katherine's excitement and nervousness represented by her approach to English. Then, in the end of the play, Shakespeare combines French and English as Henry V asks Kate to marry him. This documents, of course, a real experience in these communities which often clashed. Even the reader must change the manner in which they approach these sections of text. This abrupt language change clearly communicates the experience of fracture, but also of the fact that some experiences are universal and require no translation.

Plays often shift linguistic paradigms and there are many bridges to gap. In other words, the text of a play is not meant to stand alone on the page, but to be read out loud, acted and imagined. The addition of French is only another way of expressing the idea that we are always translating outside experience into personal experience.

Once again, I thank the group for a wonderful discussion of Henry the Fifth. I look forward to our next film course in the fall. For more information on the film series, email rfisher@hmu.edu.

To post a comment, click on the title of this blog and scroll down.

Henry IV, Part Two

March 17, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

The second half of Shakespeare's Henry IV is difficult to stage, to say the least. It is an incredibly long play as well as staging scenes in thirteen different locations. It's ambitious goal was to develop characters. Shakespeare is one of the first to take an old style farce and develop these tropes into characters. Therefore, Henry IV, Part Two includes characters such as Silence, Feeble, Shadow, Mouldy and Wart. Interaction with these comedic characters further develops the characters we met in the first half of Henry IV, such as Falstaff, the Lord Chief Justice, and, of course, Henry V (Prince Harry). The names are funny, ironic, and serious, all of which adds to the development of the characters that interact with them. The New Cambridge Edition of Shakespeare's complete plays (1942) gives the following analysis of this play. They write:

“Whatever may be thought of the comparative merit of the historical scenes, there is no decline in the part of the play carried by Falstaff. The conversations between him and the Chief Justice, the Tavern riots in which Mrs. Quickly is developed from the sketch in Part I and Doll Tearsheet and Pistol are added to the group, and the scenes with Shallow and Silence in Gloucestershire are among the greatest triumphs of Shakespearean comedy. The part played by the Prince in these is a diminishing one, the dramatist clearly preparing him and us for his final withdrawal. When this occurs in the great scene following the coronation and the reconciliation with the Lord Chief Justice, the transformation of the wild prince into the hero-king is complete. This had obviously been contemplated by Shakespeare from the first and was, of course, inevitable. Yet few episodes in these plays have been more bitterly resented than the rejection of Falstaff. Much argument has been waged in attack and defense, all of which goes to show how completely and perhaps uniquely Shakespeare has succeeded in producing in his greatest comic creation the absolute illusion of reality.”

Add to that, the fact that this play relies upon slang language much more heavily than previous plays. This localized language is one more tool in the effective development of characters. For example, much of the play takes place away from royalty, in taverns, on the streets or even one poor residential home. Difficult language adds to the difficulty of reading the play and requires the curious reader to look up many terms. For example, the banter between Mistress Quickly and Falstaff is sarcastic, biting and witty. The tone is clear, regardless of whether one understands the actual terms, yet it is difficult to ascertain exactly what their insults mean without notes. Below, I have listed a few examples of curses common to the day, and no longer in use.

"Hostess [Quickly]: By my troth, this is the old fashion; you two never meet but you fall into some discord. You art both, I' good truth, as rheumatic as two dry toasts; you cannot one bear with another's confirmities. What the good-year! One must bear, and that must be you; you are the weaker vessel, as they say, the emptier vessel." (Act II, Scene iv, 60-66)   What the good year! = a common expletive

“Prince: This Doll Tearsheet should be some road.” (Act II, Scene iii, 183)  road = harlot

“Falstaff: Away, varlets! Draw, Bardolph; cut me off the villain's head. Throw the quean in the channel.” (Act II, scene i, 50-52)  varlet = dishonest or unprincipled man or someone acting as if a servant, false servant; quean = hussy; channel = gutter

“Page: Away, you scullion! You rampallian! You fustilarian! I'll tickle your catastrophe.” (Act II, scene i, 65-66)  scullion = servant assigned the most menial tasks in the kitchen; rampallian = villain, rascal; catastrophe = end, backside

Why did Shakespeare choose such language for the second half of Henry IV? Hal increasingly becomes kingly, and the reader sees this transformation in his language, style, education and affiliations. He no longer pals around with Falstaff. On the other hand, Falstaff continues to swagger, to boast, to command a handful of poor beggars, and to drink. This continuance of character is expected, which perhaps makes Henry V's condemnation of Falstaff all the more striking and painful. When the King banishes Falstaff, the reader hopes that Falstaff will eventually gain esteem again.

The 2013 BBC film version offered incredible cuts to make the film possible, believable and narratively tight. The writers melded scenes together in a way that made a lot of sense. Difficult language does not intrude on the film version because the actors enhanced body language and facial expressions. In addition, the movie successfully employed usual tactics such as sound, colors and set design. This play lacks the action of the other three in the series, but it was never intended to have battles and Hotspurs. Rather, this play focuses on the internal political battles between Prince Harry and Henry IV, and Henry V and Falstaff.

Thanks to all of those who discussed it in our ongoing Harrison Middleton University Film Series. I look forward to Henry V in April. For more information, email rfisher@hmu.edu.

To post a comment, click on the title of this post and scroll down.

Hal's Education in Henry IV

January 20, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

In our recent film discussion on Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 1, Gary Schoepfel, HMU Tutor and discussion leader, asked whether Hal (also known as Prince Harry) could have received his education in any setting – did Hal have to visit the tavern to learn as much? Originally, I answered no, believing that he could have received this information about people (commoners) anywhere. I thought that the tavern added color making it better for a drama (which it does). Upon reflection, however, I must change my answer. The tavern allows for a level of baseness that does not exist in day to day drudgery of job life. It offers place and sustenance to whet all appetites. This enables man to show his lowest, meanest self openly. Tavern life also allows for humor and emotion. It welcomes freedom which is the exact opposite of Prince Harry's true home among royalty.

In the play's opening scence, King Henry mentions his dissatisfaction with his son Prince Harry. The King wishes that his son resembled someone like Hotspur, fiery and ambitious, rather than the tavern-seeker and prankster known as Hal. He says, “In envy that my Lord Northumberland/ Should be the father to so blest a son,/ A son who is the theme of Honour's tongue;...Whilst I, by looking on the praise of him,/ See riot and dishonour stain the brow/ Of my young Harry.” (Act I, Scene i, lines 79-86) This introduction allows the reader to expect the upcoming behavior of Prince Hal and his friends, which is riotous and bawdy. Juxtapose this introduction from his father to the actual scene which introduces Hal and Falstaff. In this environment, Hal is very much himself. He is free, witty, relaxed with all defenses down. The film accentuates their lack of propriety by having Hal wake Falstaff with a naked woman in the room. Falstaff then gets up and pees into the urinal, all the while demanding that his debts are an abuse against him. The two are hilarious, inappropriate and witty.

This relationship, between Falstaff and Hal, is irregular and out of the normal order. Being a prince, Hal's formal education took place among nobility, lords and kings. However, Falstaff, and the tavern life, has allowed Hal to connect with emotions and people in a way that is impossible to access through the crown. In fact, in Act III, King Henry confronts Hal about his behavior and even accuses him of treasonous thinking. The King gives Harry a history lesson, explaining how arduous and hard-fought was his path to the crown. In this lecture, he even asks why he has not seen more of his own son. But then, he accuses Harry of thinking to fight in Hotspur's army rather than the King's. He says to the prince, “Thou that art like enough, through vassal fear,/ Base inclination, and the start of a spleen,/ To fight against me under Percy's pay” (Act III, Scene ii, lines 124-6). This scene makes clear the fact that King Henry IV avoids emotions that could be perceived as weak. He does not allow for indulgences and, in his age, has become fearful of many people. This history leads him into trouble among his own friends and family. Prince Harry, though, responds that he will fight a duel with Hotspur in order to prove himself to the King. In other words, Hal's tavern education is complete and it is time for him to find a purpose.

Unlike the complex characters of Hal and Falstaff, Hotspur is blind to his own faults – pride, arrogance, passion. He sees these only as assets. Falstaff is clearly not blind to his own faults, but he just chooses not to see them as faults. Falstaff's character is complicated, whereas Hotspur is much more straightforward. Hal, who loves Falstaff partly because of his flaws, learns a great deal from watching a flawed character navigate through life. He sees the raw moments that no one else allows others to see. Falstaff weeps openly, laughs loudly and snores heavily. He indulges in his desires, allows others to see this and comforts himself that thieves are not evil, just needy. In all this fancy dialogue, however, Falstaff knows his baseness. He admits his folly while at the same time being incapable of change. Hal sees this too, and makes note of it as an essential ingredient in his education. Without Falstaff's example, Prince Harry would be like cardboard, a figure cut out of paper. But Falstaff adds depth, which is only achieved in the bawdy, open, free environment of the tavern life.

We will continue the discussion with Henry IV, Part 2 in March. If you are interested, email rfisher@hmu.edu. All are welcome and we would love to hear from you.

To post a comment, click on the title of this blog and scroll down.